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In the sailing classes we have taken, we have practiced how to sail away from anchor, how to anchor under sail, or pick up a mooring ball, and even how to dock under sail. One skill that we never practiced though, nor even discussed, is how to raise sail if we were underway and suddenly lost engine power. When you ask sailors what they would do if they were ever faced with a sudden failure of their auxiliary engine, they’d likely say “I’d raise my sails, of course!” While that sounds logical, the procedure for doing so is worth considering though, because it’s not quite as straight forward as one might initially think.

Every sailor knows that in order to raise the main sail, the boat needs to be pointed into the wind. That’s the kind of thing that you learn on your first lesson. When a boat is at anchor, or secured to a mooring ball, it tends to lie that way naturally, making raising the mainsail quite easy. When a boat is not at anchor though, and is left to drift at the mercy of the wind and the waves, it does not naturally point into the wind. This makes raising the mainsail a bit more complicated.

Our step by step procedure:

The following procedure is what we would do if we were underway without any sails up, and were faced with an unexpected loss of engine power.

  1. Decide whether the depth of the water that you are currently in, and the location, would allow for effective and safe anchoring. In some cases, that may actually be the best option.
  2. Assuming anchoring is not on the table, roll out (or raise) some jib so that the boat starts making way. Note that speed is not your concern at this point, so only let out enough jib to power the boat forward, and thus give you steerage.
  3. If you are close to shore, and sailing under jib alone is taking you away from any hazards, continue until you are comfortable with the available sea room.
  4. Once you have sufficient sea room, trim in the jib, and head up until you are sailing close hauled, or as close to the wind as your boat will allow under jib alone.
  5. When you are close hauled, dump the mainsheet traveller to leeward.
  6. Ease the main sheet until the boom is aligned with the apparent wind angle.
  7. As the main is now effectively in the wind, while you continue to make way under jib power, raise the main.
  8. Once the main has been raised, either all of it, or whatever portion the conditions warrant, trim in the main sheet, adjust the traveller, alter course so that you’re heading where you want to go, and carry on!

*Note that steps 4 through 8 are essentially what we would do to reef the main, or to shake out a reef.

I believe that it’s prudent to always consider situations like this. Check out this post and this one where I share my thoughts on this subject.

Want some hands-on instruction in how to do what I’ve described, and all other important sailing skills? We highly recommend our friends’ sailing school, LTD Sailing!


  1. At our sailing school we constantly practice this type of thing. As a lead I’d sometimes slyly reach past the helmsman when we were on our way motoring out of the harbor and pull the stop solenoid and announce, “The engine died. What do we do next?” It was an opportunity to test the more senior students and see if they could handle the situation, and if not, walk everyone through the process so they would know how to react if (when really) this ever happens to them.

    The headsail on a roller-furling equipped boat is almost always the easiest and best sail to get out and since it is already bent on and ready to go. It’s the best sail for heading up too. Sometimes we would sabotage the boat by taking one of the jibsheets around the furled sail an extra wrap which would start a real shipshow with a more inexperienced crew when they try and unfurl it. NOW what are we going to do? What else can go wrong…

    Being equipped in your sailing skill toolbox for dealing with adversity is paramount. Usually it is not the first problem that becomes the disaster, but a series of cascading problems and/or mistakes that leads to serious damage or injury, especially loss of the craft or loss of life. Carefully adding problems for students to solve, while still allowing yourself as the lead to be able to “save it” should things go wrong (and choosing the right time and place to have practice “problems” in the first place) is a good way to make inexperienced sailors into experienced ones in a safe and controlled environment. This is the way I was taught, and the way I teach now.

    The notion of sailors who are in charge of a boat not knowing what to do when the engine dies as they are motoring is pretty scary. Things don’t always go as planned, and knowing/planning what to do in any possible situation is part of becoming a competent sailor. You got yourself into this situation, now you gotta get yourself out.

    • I agree with everything you’ve written.

      With all that said though, what, if anything, would you differently than what I described?

      I should mention that when underway, we always have the halyards on the sails, and the sheets uncoiled and ready to go, just in case.

  2. Good advice. Unfortunately we have plenty of experience with this.
    I have also figured out how to lower, and raise as well, out sails (especially the mizzen) off the wind. This works in a good seaway. Basically, as the boat rolls through the following swells (usually quartering), I either winch up or pull down the sail on the “forward” part of the roll, when the sail is falling away from the wind and is essentially backwinded. Definitely be harnessed and clipped on during this, especially if you need to be on a mast step (as I do on the mizzen). We reef, raise and lower the main and mizzen on almost all points of sail without engine using both the techniques you and I described. Of course, raising and lowering off the wind won’t work on a catamaran.

  3. Happened to me during the purchase survey of my boat. In Annapolis Harbor. Lots of traffic, boats moored all over the place. Not the best thing on an unfamiliar boat, but we made it work. Turns out the PO had changed the fuel filters without doing a proper fuel system bleed. The surveyor had it running in about 10 minutes while we sailed. Did exactly as you described. I rolled the jib first.

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